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A short story by Henry Lawson

The Chinaman's Ghost

Title:     The Chinaman's Ghost
Author: Henry Lawson [More Titles by Lawson]

'Simple as striking matches,' said Dave Regan, Bushman; 'but it gave me the biggest scare I ever had--except, perhaps, the time I stumbled in the dark into a six-feet digger's hole, which might have been eighty feet deep for all I knew when I was falling. (There was an eighty-feet shaft left open close by.)

'It was the night of the day after the Queen's birthday. I was sinking a shaft with Jim Bently and Andy Page on the old Redclay goldfield, and we camped in a tent on the creek. Jim and me went to some races that was held at Peter Anderson's pub., about four miles across the ridges, on Queen's birthday. Andy was a quiet sort of chap, a teetotaller, and we'd disgusted him the last time he was out for a holiday with us, so he stayed at home and washed and mended his clothes, and read an arithmetic book. (He used to keep the accounts, and it took him most of his spare time.)

'Jim and me had a pretty high time. We all got pretty tight after the races, and I wanted to fight Jim, or Jim wanted to fight me--I don't remember which. We were old chums, and we nearly always wanted to fight each other when we got a bit on, and we'd fight if we weren't stopped. I remember once Jim got maudlin drunk and begged and prayed of me to fight him, as if he was praying for his life. Tom Tarrant, the coach-driver, used to say that Jim and me must be related, else we wouldn't hate each other so much when we were tight and truthful.

'Anyway, this day, Jim got the sulks, and caught his horse and went home early in the evening. My dog went home with him too; I must have been carrying on pretty bad to disgust the dog.

'Next evening I got disgusted with myself, and started to walk home. I'd lost my hat, so Peter Anderson lent me an old one of his, that he'd worn on Ballarat he said: it was a hard, straw, flat, broad-brimmed affair, and fitted my headache pretty tight. Peter gave me a small flask of whisky to help me home. I had to go across some flats and up a long dark gully called Murderer's Gully, and over a gap called Dead Man's Gap, and down the ridge and gullies to Redclay Creek. The lonely flats were covered with blue-grey gum bush, and looked ghostly enough in the moonlight, and I was pretty shaky, but I had a pull at the flask and a mouthful of water at a creek and felt right enough. I began to whistle, and then to sing: I never used to sing unless I thought I was a couple of miles out of earshot of any one.

'Murderer's Gully was deep and pretty dark most times, and of course it was haunted. Women and children wouldn't go through it after dark; and even me, when I'd grown up, I'd hold my back pretty holler, and whistle, and walk quick going along there at night-time. We're all afraid of ghosts, but we won't let on.

'Some one had skinned a dead calf during the day and left it on the track, and it gave me a jump, I promise you. It looked like two corpses laid out naked. I finished the whisky and started up over the gap. All of a sudden a great 'old man' kangaroo went across the track with a thud-thud, and up the siding, and that startled me. Then the naked, white glistening trunk of a stringy-bark tree, where some one had stripped off a sheet of bark, started out from a bend in the track in a shaft of moonlight, and that gave me a jerk. I was pretty shaky before I started. There was a Chinaman's grave close by the track on the top of the gap. An old chow had lived in a hut there for many years, and fossicked on the old diggings, and one day he was found dead in the hut, and the Government gave some one a pound to bury him. When I was a nipper we reckoned that his ghost haunted the gap, and cursed in Chinese because the bones hadn't been sent home to China. It was a lonely, ghostly place enough.

'It had been a smotheringly hot day and very close coming across the flats and up the gully--not a breath of air; but now as I got higher I saw signs of the thunderstorm we'd expected all day, and felt the breath of a warm breeze on my face. When I got into the top of the gap the first thing I saw was something white amongst the dark bushes over the spot where the Chinaman's grave was, and I stood staring at it with both eyes. It moved out of the shadow presently, and I saw that it was a white bullock, and I felt relieved. I'd hardly felt relieved when, all at once, there came a "pat-pat-pat" of running feet close behind me! I jumped round quick, but there was nothing there, and while I stood staring all ways for Sunday, there came a "pat-pat", then a pause, and then "pat-pat-pat-pat" behind me again: it was like some one dodging and running off that time. I started to walk down the track pretty fast, but hadn't gone a dozen yards when "pat-pat-pat", it was close behind me again. I jerked my eyes over my shoulder but kept my legs going. There was nothing behind, but I fancied I saw something slip into the Bush to the right. It must have been the moonlight on the moving boughs; there was a good breeze blowing now. I got down to a more level track, and was making across a spur to the main road, when "pat-pat!" "pat-pat-pat, pat-pat-pat!" it was after me again. Then I began to run--and it began to run too! "pat-pat-pat" after me all the time. I hadn't time to look round. Over the spur and down the siding and across the flat to the road I went as fast as I could split my legs apart. I had a scared idea that I was getting a touch of the "jim-jams", and that frightened me more than any outside ghost could have done. I stumbled a few times, and saved myself, but, just before I reached the road, I fell slithering on to my hands on the grass and gravel. I thought I'd broken both my wrists. I stayed for a moment on my hands and knees, quaking and listening, squinting round like a great gohana; I couldn't hear nor see anything. I picked myself up, and had hardly got on one end, when "pat-pat!" it was after me again. I must have run a mile and a half altogether that night. It was still about three-quarters of a mile to the camp, and I ran till my heart beat in my head and my lungs choked up in my throat. I saw our tent-fire and took off my hat to run faster. The footsteps stopped, then something about the hat touched my fingers, and I stared at it--and the thing dawned on me. I hadn't noticed at Peter Anderson's--my head was too swimmy to notice anything. It was an old hat of the style that the first diggers used to wear, with a couple of loose ribbon ends, three or four inches long, from the band behind. As long as I walked quietly through the gully, and there was no wind, the tails didn't flap, but when I got up into the breeze, they flapped or were still according to how the wind lifted them or pressed them down flat on the brim. And when I ran they tapped all the time; and the hat being tight on my head, the tapping of the ribbon ends against the straw sounded loud of course.

'I sat down on a log for a while to get some of my wind back and cool down, and then I went to the camp as quietly as I could, and had a long drink of water.

'"You seem to be a bit winded, Dave," said Jim Bently, "and mighty thirsty. Did the Chinaman's ghost chase you?"

'I told him not to talk rot, and went into the tent, and lay down on my bunk, and had a good rest.'





An incomplete glossary of Australian, British, or antique terms and concepts which may prove helpful to understanding this book:

"A house where they took in cards on a tray" (from Joe Wilson's Courtship): An upper class house, with servants who would take a visitor's card (on a tray) to announce their presence, or, if the family was out, to keep a record of the visit.

Anniversary Day: Mentioned in the text, is now known as Australia Day. It commemorates the establishment of the first English settlement in Australia, at Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour), on 26 January 1788.

Gin: An obvious abbreviation of "aborigine", it only refers to *female* aborigines, and is now considered derogatory. It was not considered derogatory at the time Lawson wrote.

Jackaroo: At the time Lawson wrote, a Jackaroo was a "new chum" or newcomer to Australia, who sought work on a station to gain experience. The term now applies to any young man working as a station hand. A female station hand is a Jillaroo. Variant: Jackeroo.

Old-fashioned child: A child that acts old for their age. Americans would say 'Precocious'.

'Possum: In Australia, a class of marsupials that were originally mistaken for possums. They are not especially related to the possums of North and South America, other than both being marsupials.

Public/Pub.: The traditional pub. in Australia was a hotel with a "public" bar--hence the name. The modern pub has often (not always) dispensed with the lodging, and concentrated on the bar.

Tea: In addition to the regular meaning, Tea can also mean a light snack or a meal (i.e., where Tea is served). In particular, Morning Tea (about 10 AM) and Afternoon Tea (about 3 PM) are nothing more than a snack, but Evening Tea (about 6 PM) is a meal. When just "Tea" is used, it usually means the evening meal. Variant: Tea-time.

Tucker: Food.

Shout: In addition to the regular meaning, it also refers to buying drinks for all the members of a group, etc. The use of this term can be confusing, so the first instance is footnoted in the text.

Sly-grog-shop: An unlicensed bar or liquor-store.

Station: A farm or ranch, especially one devoted to cattle or sheep.

Store Bullock: Lawson makes several references to these. A bullock is a castrated bull. Bullocks were used in Australia for work that was too heavy for horses. 'Store' may refer to those cattle, and their descendants, brought to Australia by the British government, and sold to settlers from the 'Store'--hence, the standard draft animal.

Also: a hint with the seasons--remember that the seasons are reversed from those in the northern hemisphere, hence June may be hot, but December is even hotter. Australia is at a lower latitude than the United States, so the winters are not harsh by US standards, and are not even mild in the north. In fact, large parts of Australia are governed more by "dry" versus "wet" than by Spring-Summer-Fall-Winter.

--A. L.

[The end]
Henry Lawson's short story: Chinaman's Ghost